Saturday, February 17, 2007

Sino-Japanese Diplomacy Grows With Increasing Economic Interdependence

Today's Los Angeles Times reports that China and Japan have seen improved relations in recent months. China has recently agreed to resume Japanese rice imports, ending a four-year ban that was seen as symbolizing the stark political differences between the two nations:

Yet all the while, new ties were binding them. The booming Chinese economy was lifting Japan out of a recession it hadn't been able to shake for 15 years. The Chinese were realizing that their best hope for cleaning up their foul air and toxic waters lay with Japanese technology.

And while the politicians were refusing to meet, Chinese and Japanese consumers were discovering a fondness for each other's books and movies, electronic games and pop songs.

Now, faced with awareness that they govern countries that have forged a mutual dependency, Japanese and Chinese politicians are talking again. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing was in Tokyo this week to lay the groundwork for an April visit by Premier Wen Jiabao, repayment for the courtesy call paid last October by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shortly after he took office. Wen's visit will be the highest-level Chinese mission to Tokyo since 2000.

The Sino-Japanese diplomatic thaw is good news for the region, which is facing dynamic challenges from China's growth, North Korea's proliferation agenda, and Japan's slow renunciation of its wartime past:

The improved mood has been made possible by September's retirement of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, on whose watch relations sank so low that Chinese leaders refused to meet with him even on the sidelines of international conferences. Koizumi had angered Beijing's leaders with his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial Shinto memorial to Japan's war dead, including its World War II criminals.

The Chinese saw the pilgrimages as an attempt to recant responsibility for Japan's imperial history, which included the invasion and occupation of parts of China. In April 2005, anger at a new Japanese history textbook that glossed over war atrocities sparked riots and attacks on Japanese properties in Shanghai and Beijing.

In turn, Japanese politicians accused Beijing of stoking populist anger to deflect attention from China's problems. Yet even as Koizumi was shrugging off Chinese demands to stop visiting Yasukuni, Japanese business leaders were quietly warning Tokyo that the hard-line diplomacy was threatening their ability to do business in the hot Chinese market. Many Japanese textile and manufacturing firms have relocated to China to take advantage of lower labor costs, and China has surpassed the United States as Japan's largest trading partner.

So both sides swiftly seized upon the opportunity presented by Koizumi's retirement to at least put a better public face on their diplomacy. China has made a strategic decision that foreign policy stability, or something close to it, is vital over the next few decades so it can concentrate on domestic development and its many social problems.

Read the whole thing. The article notes that Beijing is deeply wary of normalizing diplomatic relations with Tokyo. Japan is widely considered not to have done as much to heal World War II-era scars as has Germany in its relations with its continental neighbors. (See my earlier posts on the Yasukuni Shrine controversy and signs of reemerging Japanese militarism.)

While the Times piece points to the effects of increasing interdependence on improving ties, East Asia has far less mutlilateral institutionalism than is true for Europe, and the region more closely approximates classical balance-of-power politics than the European case.

There is vigorous debate in the literature on the implications of East Asia's relative institutionalism for the future of international security. Richard Betts, for example, argued at the end of the Cold War that Asia was likely to become a difficult security environment as states in the region increased in wealth and power. Aaron Friedberg said Asia was "Ripe for Rivalry," though he stressed a range a variables that might work to temper regional conflict, including liberal institutionalist factors. Japan's economy is still much larger than China's, but there's a relative gains problem for Tokyo in China's rise. Past historical experience shows that uneven economic change can bring about wars of hegemonic rivalry and replacement. It remains to be seen how significant the current patch-up in Sino-Japanese ties will be in muting traditional patterns of great power competition in Asia. The implications of this dynamic will stretch across the globe.

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